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26.10.03

"The Texas Chainsaw" Massacred

Hollywood SignIonarts is proud to host the cinematic musings of a friend in Hollywood: beginning today, guest blogger Todd Babcock will be contributing movie reviews and other posts related to the world of cinema, that quintessential American art form.

The new "Texas Chainsaw Massacre" plays out as a 90-minute cinematic equivalent of a 'dead baby joke'. It's jarring and offensive and leaves one with nothing but repulsive images that linger on afterwards. While both had a series of endless revamps and evolutions during the seventies and eighties (i.e., "a truckload of dead babies" or "unloading them with a pitchfork" with "Texas Chainsaw Massacre II" and "TCM: The Next Generation") it seems a bit pointless to rehash them twenty years later. It's akin to someone telling Lenny Bruce jokes thirty years after the obscenity trials. Without the temporal setting of its origin it gets lost in the wash of "just another foul-mouthed comedian/slasher film." Which it is.

The hope of anyone going in with title recognition here is that somehow this 'new' director (Marcus Nispel, who has spent upwards of twenty years on commercials and music videos) has found some innovative way to reinvent a dusty classic. The original's appeal was not in its realistic effects or its Oscar-caliber cast but, rather, in its very bargain-basement approach. For some reason the horror genre seems to be the only one that benefits from low film quality. It's as if moviegoers have been coddled by the comforting filters and film stock of major motion pictures over the years. They have been slowly taught that if a film has an immense budget and major stars no one up high is going to present anything too nasty to rock the boat. This point is evidenced by the recent hit "28 Days Later" and, like it or not, "The Blair Witch Project" that even under the recent decade mark seems to have stolen this film's possible thunder.

The problem here lies in the fact there is no thunder to steal. While the film pays homage to the original in its opening with its faux-documentary presentation (even here we see the tell-tale post-production grain effect added to a too-clean image), it quickly fades to our 'cosmetically dirtied' teens playfully awaiting a headlong run-in with everyone's worst notion of what exists in the darkest recesses of our country. This Calvin Klein cum Scooby-Doo clan of oversexed tokers look more retro-chic than period (the bumper sticker on the van reads "Hippie Chicks Rule") and far too attractive for our eye to accept them as everyday unfortunates. The risk here was that with all these supposed upgrades in quality (the actors are actually quite competent) one is presented with a new set of challenges. Mainly, after removing the home-cooked quality of the original, what quality are you replacing it with?

The answer lies in the question which, one assumes, was never asked upon incubation. The horror genre has always had a history of making its money back. The Raimi brothers grabbed a camera and ran around the woods chasing their friends and turned it into the "Evil Dead" franchise. Video shelves are filled with endless titles evoking suspicious renters looking for authentic thrills ("They Come Back," "Never Dead," "Please Stop Killing My Daughter"). In this way the horror genre shares much of its appeal with the porn industry. No one cares if the acting's good, if it's shot well, or if there's a story. The question is, Does it get the job done? Which is mainly the documentation of body parts and what we do with them. Referring back to Mr. Bruce, it has been endlessly commented on that one must enter a private booth for renting erotic exploitation and simply have HBO for the other (not his actual words).

The difference is that, with mayhem being a socially acceptable form of 'getting off', that genre has suddenly taken center stage. Horror has been put in the spotlight and has a new generation of cinematic savants in its charge. Ever since Kubrick made a masterpiece of a Stephen King book one must ask oneself truly what a horror film is. Is it fair to categorize "The Sixth Sense" alongside such titles as "I'll Kill You, Bitch," "Still Killing You," and "Killing You III: The Final Chapter in the Kill Trilogy"? Every genre has a way of reinventing itself over time. It's a natural progression of any art form that it gets referential of other forms and periods and yet breaks new ground and asks more of the viewer. With the advent of Wes Craven's "Scream" trilogy, the horrror genre had finally taken a large step forward. The incorporation of protagonists who are aware of what type of movie they're in and address its clichés would seem to put an end to horror-by-rote filmmaking. Which is why it seemed like such a misstep when the previous pedestrian outing of "Freddie vs. Jason" seemed to go backward instead of forward. Wes Craven had already pushed that franchise and genre to the limits when he had Freddie Krueger stalking the very actor who portrays him. Once, it seems, these steps are taken there is no going back. Yet here we have our marquee heroes (not villains, heroes) slashing open teens during drunken bouts and premarital sex. But even more shocking than its formulaic sensibility was our inability to believe that any of these kids hadn't heard of Freddie Krueger. Guys, he's on lunchboxes. Perhaps these kids were from the same 1973 that the "Massacre" club were from and weren't quite aware that in small, inbred towns you don't meet the sheriff at the deserted 'old mill'.

What has suddenly emerged from these name-brand horror franchises is a comfort level. The very comfort that these films are meant to shed with their low-budget, anything-goes tactics. Now we have a relationship with Freddy, Jason, Michael, and the backwoods clan of "Massacre." Like its outlaw cousin, the porn industry, we all are just waiting for an ever-changing hero/heroine to get fucked. Which really draws into question the nature of horror and the pathos of violence. It's easier now for audiences to relate to these one-time villains because they have spent more time with them. These baddies have personality, goals, and irreverence, unlike their victims whom we resent for their stupidity and comfort ourselves in our superiority. What began as possibly a horrific concept has now devolved into a cuddly monster flick with as little or no shock value as a Saturday afternoon with "Godzilla." The litmus test being the post-screening chat heard in the theater lobby where fright-hopeful lines stare expectantly at the reaction of the departees. The standard query of "Was it scary?" is responded to with "No, but there were some good killings." While standard porn/horror will always recycle the same stories with different faces and box covers it reveals a desperation in the moviegoers, that they are constantly willing to shell out the now outrageous $10 asking price.

The conundrum this film presents is that it has an all-around 'quality' and polish like that of one of Nispel's Nike ads. Yet one has to wonder if there was a director present at all. Couldn't a competent director of photography and technicians grab the same glossy footage and have a talented editor assemble it? While one is transfixed in its commercial glaze and by repeated opportunities to dampen Ms. Biel's white tank-top one can actually lose sight of the fact there is really no craft going on. Certainly there are jumps and starts here and there but I'd challenge even the most pedantic filmaker not to get a rise from his audience by simply having a chainsaw buzzing near pretty young things. Once again, if we actually just filmed a truckload of dead babies...

Of course it follows that many a peer has cited the common charge, "It's 'The Texas Chainsaw Massacre': what did you expect?" Well, quite honestly, a good movie. Which is exactly what does this film in...expectation. Had this title not existed previously and was simply a 'concept' slasher film starring Jessica Biel it wouild probably go under the radar with marginal profits like this year's "Wrong Turn" with its inbred baddies, simmering TV stars (Eliza Dushku, Jeremy Sisto) and mayhem. "Massacre" carries with it a history, and one assumed from the slick, enticing trailer and the fact there wasn't a numerical tag on the title's end that something new was going to be done. Otherwise, why do it? The answer, once again, lies in the question. Audiences keep showing up in droves in vain hopes of seeing something 'great' or, perhaps, even just 'good', and it's a testament to that hunger that these films open so well. The promise of this over-hyped "retelling" is that it had something to say other than simply glamming a previous concept (the inbred boy looks like he should be modelling Gap Jr. wear without the fake wax teeth; great skin, really), and one wonders how many times Hollywood can go to that well before it runs dry. Most likely, a lot.

The loss here is not simply that another mediocre film has found its way to a big opening. I think the audiences are inured to that possibility at every sitting. It's in the missed opportunity. "Massacre" finds its suspence and anxiety not simply by possible chainsaw execution but by its juxtaposition of sensibilities. Peckinpah's "Straw Dogs" and Boorman's "Deliverance" truly horrified us with the notion there are 'lost' people and places in every society who aren't sitting around watching Nispel's commercials and music videos and consuming his products and fitting into targeting demographics. Perhaps that's a notion too horrifying for Nispel and Michael Bay to consider.

Cost of making the movie? Millions.
Cost of marketing the movie? Tens of millions.
Cost of making a movie that will last beyond its three-week opening money clutching push? Priceless.

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